Foster Care is a Reproductive Justice Issue

Carmen Tellez
If/When/How

The right of families to live together and the right of children to be raised by their parents are at the core of society, yet these rights are routinely violated in the name of children’s well-being. Just as disproportionate and discriminatory policing leads to mass incarceration of young men of color, entrenched racism and classism in the child welfare system leads to disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx children entering foster care. The discriminatory removal of children from their parents’ care and the excessive policing of how poor parents raise their children are pressing issues that demand a response from reproductive justice advocates.

Reproductive justice is a framework developed by feminist organization SisterSong in the mid-1990s to expand the mainstream reproductive rights movement’s singular focus on the legal right to end a pregnancy. Instead, reproductive justice considers how different power structures, like race, class or immigration status, affect a person’s ability to determine their own reproductive future. In addition to the legal right to abortion, people must also have the right to raise their children in healthy communities, with social and economic support, and free from the fear of violence from individuals or the state.

People often assume that removal of children from their families occurs only in cases of serious abuse. That is not true. Many allegations against parents are based solely on neglect. Oftentimes, the “neglect” in these cases is simply the act of raising children while poor. For instance, parents who are unable to afford childcare have found themselves accused of neglect after leaving their children on their own for even very brief amounts of time, while others are hauled into family court proceedings because they live in unsafe apartments that are chronically neglected by unresponsive landlords.

Removing children from their parents because of poverty solves no problems. Instead, it causes psychological harm to the children and families involved. Rather than focusing on policing parents, the child welfare system should focus on providing robust social supports for families living in poverty. Achieving reproductive justice requires protecting marginalized communities’ right to raise their families in safety and dignity.

Parents who have previous involvement in the foster care system and find themselves pregnant face a number of threats to their reproductive autonomy. These women may rightfully worry that if child welfare services finds out they are pregnant, they will try to remove the infant to foster care. This fear can cause women to avoid getting the prenatal services necessary for their health and the health of their unborn child for fear of losing that child to foster care. Blocking women from accessing reproductive healthcare services for fear of state involvement in their parenting choices is a grave violation of their reproductive autonomy.

The child welfare system has immense power over families. This power is mostly wielded against low-income families of color. Securing the physical, mental, economic and spiritual well-being of women—the objective of the reproductive justice movement—requires changing the child welfare system such that it no longer strips low-income women of color of their right to parent free from state intrusion.

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